Happy Meals and pinball: Playing with Plastic Man!

Here’s something I haven’t said since I was nine years old — I can’t wait to get a Happy Meal.

Believe it or not, it’s not because I’ve got a hankering for a handful of chicken nuggets or an aching need for strangely warm pickle slices. Just like when I was a kid, what I really want is the toy inside that box.

Specifically, I want the new Plastic Man figure being released today (Sept. 20th) at McDonald’s.

OK, OK, there are other figures and masks being released to promote the new Cartoon Network show, Justice League Action, as well as a set of “girls” toys with characters from DC Super Hero Girls. (Just a quick aside — seriously, McDonald’s? We’re still doing the “boys” toys and “girls” toys. C’mon.) So, in addition to Plas, the toys include:

  • Superman, Batman, Hawkman, Green Arrow, Wonder Woman, Bumblebee, Katana, Batgirl, and Supergirl figures;
  • Batman, Batgirl, Hawkman, and Green Arrow masks;
  • a Supergirl headband;
  • and a Wonder Woman tiara.

That’s a lot of cheeseburgers to choke down. Luckily, that Plastic Man fig obviously rocks your face off, so let’s ask questions!

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Do Plas’ arms bend or stretch? Or do they just swivel back and forth?

Does the neck pop up? Judging by the way the neck sits on the torso, it sure looks like it does. That would be fantastic.

Will Plas be one of the first heroes to be featured when Justice League Action premieres in October? That would also be fantastic.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was some sort of online game to go along with this figure?

That last one is easy, because there is — specifically, a McPlay pinball game designed by none other than friend of the blog, Luke Daab! Daab designed pinball games for all of the JLAction and DC Super Hero Girls characters, but Plastic Man really seems like a natural fit.

Just look at this guy.

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I’m looking forward to seeing what Daab and his creative co-workers have come up with; as senior art director at Creata, Daab was the sole visual designer of the game, working with programmers and the company’s internal digital team to develop the gameplay. And, he says, there is plenty of gameplay.

“You win the game by defeating Mr. Mind, which is done one of two ways,” Daab says. “The first is by slowly eliminating the lights in his health meter. This is done by hitting the silver button with the ball. The second is if you’re lucky enough to hit the ball through the small INSTANT WIN tunnel! But you have to beware. What you can do to Mr. Mind, he can do to you!”

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Of course, this is a Plastic Man-themed game, so things are a little less rigid. As a character, Plas always seems to be on the move, and his pinball game is no different.

“All of the bumpers in this game move around the board. Unlike regular pinball, the gameplay is much more random. Among the moving bumpers is a giant red ball which may or may not be Plastic Man himself. I left it ambiguous in order to stay consistent with the other games,” Daab says.

He also had some tips for would-be gamers. “By hitting the red ball in conjunction with the other two bumpers, you trigger a FREE SAVE in which Plastic Man’s hand stretches into frame and saves your ball! You can also activate defended game play. During this, Plastic Man’s arms stretch across the bottom corners of the board. For five seconds, you literally can’t lose!”

Take a look:

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I’m not going to lie — I laughed out loud with delight (delight!) when I saw those arms stretching and bending across the field. Daab understands that what makes the classic superheroes, especially DC’s superheroes, appealing is a sense of fun. That really comes through with this game design.

If this whole Happy Meal campaign — from the figures to the online games — is meant to get people ramped up for the shows coming in October, well … mission accomplished.

So, how many nuggets come in a Happy Meal nowadays, anyway?

Alex Toth brings Plastic Man to the Super Friends

There are, maybe, a handful of comic book artists whose careers could be described as impeccable. Whether it’s the growing pains of the early years, or a slow decline in the artist’s twilight, even the most revered comic book illustrators tend to have periods where their work is not quite their best.

Alex Toth is not one of those artists.

One of my absolute favorite artists, Toth set the bar in every field he worked in. His clean, graceful style brightened several comics for years, and he brought that same sensibility to animation, most recognizably with his character designs for Hanna-Barbera. (Space Ghost? Herculoids? Pure Toth.)

And those two career paths crossed at least once when he worked on a little show called Super Friends. When the cartoon debuted on ABC in 1973, it was based on character designs Toth did for all the featured DC heroes and villains, as well as three guest stars — Flash, Green Arrow and …

… Plastic Man!

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There are some great notes on this character sheet, and I think Toth’s affection for Plas is obvious — after all, he is “the one and only original ‘Plastic Man!'” A few of the more interesting notes include those saying Plastic Man is wearing flesh-colored tights (imagine the runs in those stockings), and that there shouldn’t be any prominent muscle definition (which makes sense, and has been a hallmark of the character’s design since the beginning).

My favorite, though, is the note at the bottom of the left-hand column: What erroneous model sheets is Toth talking about? Which was the wrong comic book art used? Did Elongated Man somehow nearly sneak his way onto the Super Friends?! That Dibney, man — anything for attention.

While the character sheet includes some wonderful shapeshifting moments, I’ll be the first to say that Plastic Man’s first animated appearance, and his only one in Super Friends, doesn’t really add up to much. Showing up briefly toward the end of “Professor Goodfellow’s G.E.E.C.”, Plastic Man is called in to take care of some … technical difficulties … in his own imitable* way. And then that’s it, at least until he’d get his own cartoon with The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show six years later.

Still, it’s always fun to see Plas doing his thing, and he always seems especially well-suited for animation. Plus, I love that Plastic Man and Superman refer to each other as “PM” and “SM.” Check out the final result!

*”Inimitable” in the way that every other stretchy hero has pulled the same gag since.

Interview: Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters (and what we can expect) starts to take shape with writer Simon Oliver

In just a little more than a month, Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters will finally be on the stands, marking the pliable paladin’s first appearance in a DC comic in years. As part of DC’s Convergence event, the two-issue mini series will put Plas, Uncle Sam, Phantom Lady and the rest of the Freedom Fighters back on familiar territory — fightin’ Nazis and kickin’ robot butt (OK, that last part might be new).

Personally, I can’t wait to see what writer Simon Oliver and artist John McCrea put together, especially after Oliver was kind enough to take the time to share his thoughts on his approach to Plastic Man, some insights on what makes him work, and the importance of Batman’s severed head.

It’s Plastic Man: Did DC approach you to do Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters? Was it a tough sell? What about it appealed to you?

Simon Oliver: DC initially approached me about the Convergence project and I got cold feet, and was frankly a little intimidated. I was busy on other projects and the thought of getting to grips with the kind of continuity that fanboys rake you over the Internet coals over seemed a little daunting to say the least. So I declined, put it to one side and moved on.

But then two weeks later the phone rings and it’s Dan DiDio and the entire editorial team behind the project, and Dan starts throwing DCU timelines I could use and it’s going in one ear and out the other (when I say I simply don’t know superheroes, I really mean it), but when he comes to the one about Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters battling Nazis in occupied NYC, I was like, “Hey, back up there, what the fuck was that?” I might not know superheroes but I’m pretty sure I can do Nazis.

So I was pretty much in, but then Dan went on to say, “Hey, just focus on a character-driven story, and above all have fun with it,” which is an obvious but too-often unsaid detail of writing comics (it shouldn’t be about punching in and hitting predetermined story points) and, well, I was sold. And yeah I had fun writing it and I think it shows on the page.

What materials did DC send to familiarize you with the character? Was there a version or storyline — such as Plas’ time as an Axis-buster — that you connected with in particular?

I read everything I could about Plastic, which compared to some of the other DCU characters is surprisingly light on the ground. It’s odd, because everyone knows who he is, he has this insane name recognition for a character who’s appeared in so few books. There were a couple of questions about his continuity, he was at one point killed off, but then there was a question about if he was really dead? And can you kill someone who can’t biodegrade? I think in taking on Plastic Man I not only dodged a big continuity bullet, but really lucked out in getting a character who despite everyone knowing who he was, wasn’t too loaded down with conflicting history. He really is a diamond that’s been, if not forgotten, then at least kind of passed over in favor of other characters.

But out of all his past story lines it was the old battling Nazis story line I got to focus on. I grew up in England in the 1970’s when they still published a lot of war comics like Commando and Warlord. That part was relatively easy to tap into.

Working sketch by John McCrea
Working sketch by John McCrea

I know you can’t give away any details, but some of the art teased by (Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters artist) John McCrea seemed to hint at a closer look at Plastic Man’s time at the Rest-Haven monastery; does that point to the sort of thing you meant (in an interview with Newsarama) when you mentioned finding and exploring an “emotional connection” you weren’t expecting?

Yeah, it wasn’t what I was expecting going into the project, but at some point with Plastic the story started taking me below the surface and into his past to find out “who” he really is. And to do that I had to go back to before he became Plastic Man, to when he was a petty criminal, and find that inner conflict. I mean, he went from criminal to superhero pretty quickly. By accident he was handed these powers and given a second chance, when he really didn’t deserve it — that has to leave some scars, that has to create some conflict over “who” he really is inside.

Plastic Man really does seem to be a “known unknown;” everyone is familiar with him, but nobody seems to know much about him, especially when it comes to his past as a criminal. Saying he got his powers accidentally and was “given a second chance when he really didn’t deserve it” is a powerful point. I’ve always wondered what it was about his life as a crook that made him almost grateful for the chance to be something, to be someone, else.

Yeah I totally agree. He was a lowlife who had the potential for greatness thrust upon him. I think as much as he’d like to draw a line in the sand and forget his criminal past, it’s really as much a part of who he is and how he got there; he just has to learn how to balance both sides of himself.

He’s kind of a superhero without being overly super, or heroic. He’s in that camp of superheroes that didn’t train or plan on becoming what they are — I think that makes them kind of interesting. It’s kind of like lottery winners; one day you have nothing, the next you have it all.

Plas stretches out with some tai-chi at Rest-Haven. Art by John McCrea.
Plas stretches out with some tai-chi at Rest-Haven. Art by John McCrea.

Was there something in particular in the character’s origin or history that resonated with you?

There’s a big detail that I’m not allowed to mention, but let’s just say Plastic has a big “reversal of fortune” and is back where he started, forced to reevaluate his life so far, and choose how he’s going to act from that point on. I’ve not written superheroes before, but for me as a writer that’s the kind of emotional spine, the meat of any story, that you look for. I wanted to take Plastic on a emotional life-changing journey, but at the same time not lose who he is as a character and what makes people like him so much. He’s not a brooding guy, he’s not the Dark Knight, he’s not someone who’s generally weighed down by life. He rolls with the punches, he’s a glass half-full guy, and I didn’t want to lose sight of his humor, but at the same time didn’t want to make him a joke.

If there’s anything I picked up in my research and I think had a valid point, was that people liked Plastic but felt he’d turned into too much of a wise-cracking sidekick. I really wanted to take him back and show who he was inside, balance out the jokes with some heart.

Most people do think of Plastic Man as just a humor character without realizing Woozy Winks was originally the comic relief — Plastic Man was the straight man. You said you don’t want to lose his humor, but you also don’t want him to be a joke; how tough was it to maintain that balance? And what do you think of the more goofball portrayals of Plastic Man — do you think they miss the point?

I wouldn’t say they miss the point, it’s just a different approach, and as much as I like to have moments in my books that are funny, at least to me, I wouldn’t say I was an out-and-out funny writer. There’s a moment in my second issue, which only hit me during the lettering phase, where Plastic assumes the bag of explosives he has is fake. It’s just this potentially throw-away moment, or at least it should be, but one that has a huge impact on the story. But after all he’s been through, to make such a stupid but human mistake, is kind of funny to me. It makes him very human.

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Art by John McCrea, colors by John Kalisz

Speaking of Woozy, do you think he helps or hurts the character of Plastic Man?

I did manage to get Woozy in the mix, just one scene and things do not do well between them. If I did get to continue with the characters I’d go for dysfunction between them over comedy. Woozy would be the walking reminder of what Plastic was. He’s that friend who is going to get you shot. You can’t remember why you’re friends, but you stick up for them despite all common sense telling you to run the other way.

The more I think about (Plastic Man), really, the more I feel I want to pitch for his own book. It feels like such a no-brainer to me.

I couldn’t agree more. A Plastic Man book seems kind of obvious, and in particular I’d love to see what you would do with that. I have no idea what’s going on with Convergence, but whether his own book was set in the “regular” universe or the Nazi-fighting universe, I think people would definitely respond to it. I know I’d be in.

The Convergence thing is definitely a self-contained thing and from what little I know I don’t think it will have any huge bearing on continuity. I think it’s designed more as a way of looking back at different aspects of the DCU’s past, before moving on into business as usual after the move (to California).

I don’t think I’ve heard it described that way before, but it makes sense.

I may be wrong but that was the impression I got when it was pitched to me.

I think that there may be some good books coming out of it. I kept waiting to be told to rewrite everything based on some change in another book, or to shoehorn in something that wouldn’t work, but they left me alone, even let me use Batman’s severed head as a plot device, if that gives you any indication. My feeling is they should learn from that and inject some sense of fun back in. Everyone is too damn precious about IP and potential movie spin-offs to have any fun anymore.

Which is such a shame — I think fun is what’s so appealing about superhero comics in the first place. But if I can have my own, “Hey back up there, what the fuck was that?” — Batman’s severed head?!?

It’s just a robot Batman’s head, but I couldn’t not find a way to do it. But I was surprised that they let me do it.

Knowing the approach was more than “punching in and hitting predetermined story points” is really encouraging. And while you’re not wrong about fanboys and devotion to continuity, do you hope some of what you’ve written will become a part of the Plastic Man canon?

I think I was lucky because Plastic has been so passed over by the reinvention and new, more grounded approach so many other characters have had in the last 20-plus years. It’s only two issues, and we cover a crazy amount of ground in those 44 pages, so I didn’t get to do the kind of depth I would have really, really liked to do on him. The great thing was that I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, his origin story is no different, just his reaction and moral struggle is hopefully a new angle that gives him some added depth.

Were there any Plastic Man writers or artists that you particularly enjoyed?

John fricking McCrea — blew me away on this.

Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters #1 will be released April 29.

In the meantime, catch up with writer Simon Oliver on Twitter at @simonoliver01 and be sure to read his current series, FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics (it’s really good). You can also find artist John McCrea on Twitter at @mccreaman, along with lots of his great artwork. Let them know you’re looking forward to seeing their work on Plastic Man!

Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters: Hilary Barta talks covers, plus behind-the-scenes looks at what we can expect from John McCrea!

Artist Hilary Barta is a busy man, but he’s also a really nice guy, and recently he was kind enough to field a few quick questions about his upcoming cover work for Convergence: Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters. Barta, of course, drew one of the best-known versions of Plas in the 1988-89 Plastic Man mini series (written by Phil Foglio), so it’s exciting to see him return to a character he’s so rightfully identified with.

Detail from one of Barta's upcoming covers for Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters.
Detail from one of Barta’s upcoming covers for Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters.

How did the cover assignments come about?

I was contacted by Marie Javins, the series editor, who offered me the covers. She said a “little birdie on Facebook” thought I’d want to draw Plastic Man. She later upgraded that to a very big birdie. But I have no idea to whom who she was alluding.

How many covers will you be doing?

It’s a two-issue series, and I’ve drawn both covers.

What’s it like to come back to the character?

I love Plas, and any chance to draw him is hard to pass up. But I’m not a superhero artist by disposition, and so the Freedom Fighters were out of my usual, cartoony comfort range. All except for Plas, of course.

What are your general Impressions of the upcoming storyline? Do you think readers will be excited by Plastic Man’s return?

The storyline has a connection to events in the DC continuity from a long time ago, and features a New York City under Nazi rule. I have no idea what readers will like — I never have. Series artist John McCrea is really good, and there are some action scenes with Plas stretching and such. So fans of Plas might enjoy those. But this is not a Jack Cole inspired humor book. It’s a superhero action book starring Plas with other Golden Age heroes that has humorous touches.

Speaking of John McCrea, the Hitman artist has been sprinkling some sneak peeks at his interior work for Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters into his Twitter stream for a few weeks now, and it looks fantastic. McCrea seems to have done a good job giving the setting a certain feel, a sense of what a world living under Nazi rule would look like, with just the right amount of grit and undercurrent of menace to give the idea of an underground resistance weight. It also looks like there’ll be plenty of Nazi-busting action, which I whole-heartedly endorse.

That said, this might be my favorite image so far.

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Because of course Plastic Man would learn tai chi from the monks who saved him! I don’t know if that was McCrea’s idea or writer Simon Oliver’s, but it’s so perfect I can’t believe no one thought of it before.

Here’s a rough sketch of a crazy-kinetic fight scene, with Plas in the bottom-right corner. And can I just say that The Human Bomb has one of the simplest and best costume designs ever?

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This is a gorgeous rendering of what I’m guessing is Rest-Haven, the mountain retreat where monks care for and rehabilitate the acid-doused Eel O’Brian.; I especially like what looks like a nod to Bhutanese architecture. I wouldn’t mind having this framed and hanging on my wall — it’s just beautiful.

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And finally, here are a couple of finished panels, with colors by John Kalisz!

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Man! Between Barta’s covers and McCrea’s interiors, it looks like there’s going to be a lot to look forward to once the first issue drop on April 29! Only 94 days to go!

See more of what Hilary Barta is up to at his website, and check out more Convergence: Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters artwork and follow John McCrea on Twitter. (He’s a super-nice guy, too!)

More from the 1982 DC Style Guide

1982 seemed to be a good year for Plastic Man.

Not only was he coming off a string of recent earlier appearances in various team-up books — including a year-long run in Adventure Comics and featured roles in Super Friends, All-Star Squadron and a few others —he was a cover boy for the ’82 DC Style Guide! Of course, “seemed” is the key word; except for some sporadic pop-ups in All-Star Squadron (nooo, I’m not going to abbreviate it), Plas would almost disappear from the DCU until he and everyone else walked on for the Crisis on Infinite Earths in ’85.

(I’m planning to get into it for a future post, but man, does the Earth 1/Earth 2/Earth X-ish timelines for Plastic Man get a little confusing.)

Still, there was obviously some love for our Indian rubber man in the DC offices, and he got some repeated play in the style guide from who I’m still pretty sure was José Luis Garcia-López. And that’s never a bad thing.

Here’s the cover, with Plas taking a stretch on the back. (Don’t think I didn’t notice that chump Dibney on the front cover). I’m always amused by the way artists hide Plastic Man in crowd shots, but reward the viewer if they’re paying attention. He’s like a super-powered Waldo.

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This black-and-white detail is gorgeous, and somehow looks less crowded (even with the addition of Red Tornado). But now that I think about it, what the hell happened to Plas’ arms?! Is he doing the T-Rex?

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And here’s a really well-composed splash page — including arms!

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I love, love, love this art and could look at it all day (and have!) I do have one question, though. Go back and look at the covers: What’s the deal with the baby Dynamic Duo? And the Li’l Superman and Wonder Woman? And wouldn’t this have been a perfect time to plant a tiny Baby Plas?!

(Check out Plastic Man’s Pantone appearance in this earlier post!)

Now in full-color!

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I love little behind-the-scenes bits of ephemera, and this DC Comics color guide from 1982 may be one of my favorite things. Part of the reason these character and costume designs are so iconic is because they are (or were) consistent, and that helps make them instantly recognizable. (The artwork doesn’t hurt either. It’s hard to tell at that size, but is that José Luis Garcia-López’s work, praised be his name?)

I think it speaks well of Plastic Man as a character that, in a group of fairly static poses, the wise-acre is still managing to get into some mischief!

Where the Plastic Man typeface came from

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Direct from Kyle Baker himself, here’s a comparison of the font he used for his run on Plastic Man and the typeface that inspired it. I wish I could say I recognized it, but all I can say is I always thought it was a good fit. Knowing where it’s originally from just makes it kinda perfect.